Tools for Building Alternate Reality Narratives

This week in the Games-Based Learning MOOC we’ve been discussing Alternate Reality Games (ARG’s) and how to design them, especially in terms of building a narrative that will engage the players and help them become immersed in the game. For me, the most challenging aspect of designing and building an ARG is how to establish the “this is not a game” mentality (TINAG). In discussing both narrative and TINAG, I couldn’t help but think of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s theory of the willing suspension of disbelief. In describing his contributions to his and Wordsworth’s seminal collection of poetry, Lyrical Ballads, Coleridge wrote:

It was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.

The result of Coleridge’s efforts is the greatest piece of supernatural poetry ever written: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. There are two essential components to Coleridge’s method: human interest and a semblance of truth; we see these two aspects of Coleridge’s theory at work in The Rime and it is, I believe, an excellent text for game designers to study in order to better understand both. So, the two questions that I’ve been considering this week as I continue to work on designing my Interactive Fiction syllabus and how I might integrate AR into some of my other classes is how to ensure that my narratives integrate both human interest and a semblance of truth. A great source of inspiration for me has been a TED Talk that was part of our GBL course work this week; it is the story of teacher John Hunter and the  World Peace Game that he has his 4th graders play.

Hunter’s World Peace Game is the perfect example of an ARG that addresses both of Coleridge’s requirements for a willing suspension of disbelief.  You can tell from watching and listening to Hunter’s students that they have willingly accepted the TINAG premise because they both value the importance of  the humanistic issues embedded within the game and they are, through immersive role-play, creating a semblance of truth.

In my own game design, the human interest component is not as much a challenge as how to create a semblance of truth. For this, my own FYC II students have provided some very good examples. As mentioned in my last post, this class is using immersive role-play to analyze and write about the short stories and plays they’re reading, which they have, as part of their role-play, treated as real events. Students have been working in role-based guilds all term, but for the final project, I asked them to partner with someone from a different guild and work together to create a multimodal piece that demonstrates their characters’ combined analysis of one of the texts we have covered. In doing so, the students have utilized various methods to imbue their work with a sense of realism.

Social Media

One group decided to address Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story, which involves an encounter between two strangers during which one, Jerry, seems to force the other, Peter, into helping him commit assisted suicide. Because Jerry is dead, the students recognized that they would need a way to investigate his motives. They decided to create a Facebook page for Jerry; using clues from the text, they created a page that included a profile pic, status updates, and quotations that indicated that Jerry was becoming increasingly depressed due to feelings of social inadequacy and  isolation.

The group had to use clues from the text to create Jerry's Facebook page.
The group had to use clues from the text to create Jerry’s Facebook page.

Because social media use is so ubiquitous, the students knew that, however isolated and disconnected Jerry might be in real life, he would more than likely use social media as a way to try to connect to people and as a venue for expressing his feelings.

When creating an ARG, social media is an excellent way to add a veneer of reality. Almost everyone has either a Facebook or Twitter account (or both) and most businesses and organizations also use one or both of these forms of social media for networking with other companies/groups and advertising to and connecting with potential and existing customers/clients. Social media embodies verisimilitude not only because of its popularity, but because it offers the ability to release content in real time, thus providing a sense of immediacy; social media sites are, by nature, frequently updated and content is organized in reverse chronological order. Because of this, social media is also a way to add ambiguity to your narrative (ambiguity being one of the seven ways that games reward the brain); by not having all information available immediately but releasing it gradually over the life of the game, players are more likely to become invested in remaining in the game in order to access the missing information and are more likely to experience the feeling of TINAG (because real life is ambiguous and full of unknown variables).


Another group, also addressing The Zoo Story, integrated one of the character’s blog into their project, using it as evidence in their analysis (the premise they created is quite complex and involves a Dr. Who-like time-traveling blogger who uses virtual reality to experience events from the past from whatever point of view he wishes; during the events of The Zoo Story, he chooses to inhabit Jerry and, in the process, becomes entangled with his identity, bringing it back with him and recreating Jerry’s actions in his own  time so that the other students’ investigation must solve both murders). Again, the students recognized that many people are now living their lives virtually via the internet and blogs are one of the most popular ways in which they are doing so (at the beginning of 2011, there were over 156 million public blogs and an untold number of private ones).

When creating an ARG, blogs are a good way to bring in the perspective of various characters. One example ARG that we looked at this week in the MOOC, Exocog, uses a blog in order to provide insights from the main character, Sarah. Like social media, blogs are frequently updated, affording a chance to release information over the life of the game and create a feeling of immediacy.


One student who ended up having to work independently decided to build on a previous project she had completed during the term for Joyce Carol Oates’s short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been,” which involves a teenage girl who is kidnapped by an older man. For her original project, the student, who had taken on the role of a criminal defense investigator, had filled in a real missing person’s report for the kidnapped girl, Connie. For her final project, the student created a premise in which Connie eventually escapes her abductor 13 years later, writes a best-selling book about her experiences, and starts a non-profit called Safe Zone, for which the student created a website. Again, websites are a common method for organizations and companies to provide information about their work to the public. Exocog also makes use of websites for providing clues and information to players. There are several tools for building a free website, two of my favorites being Google Sites and Weebly. While websites typically are more static than blogs, they are sometimes updated, so you can choose either option.

Web 2.o Tools

There are several other web 2.0 tools that can be used to add realistic elements to an ARG, several of which were mentioned in my last post on DIY mystery games. My students this term have utilized two of these tools in interesting ways. As part of her final project on the escaped kidnap victim, Connie, the criminal defense investigator used Fodey to create a newspaper clipping in order to introduce the premise behind Connie’s re-appearance.

The student created a newspaper clipping to create the context for her final project
The student created a newspaper clipping to create the context for her final project

A second tool that students made use of to bring a sense of truth to their projects is Glogster. One team, a cold-case detective and a forensic psychologist, used Glogster to create an evidence board for the play Trifles by Susan Glaspell.

One group created the kind of evidence board you might find in a squad room.
One group created the kind of evidence board you might find in a squad room.

These are just two examples of how web 2.o tools can be used to create the kinds of media you might find in real-life contexts within the game narrative. While you can’t have players discover a real newspaper article (or maybe you can?) or stumble upon a real evidence board in a real squad room, you can create virtual versions to embed within the game. Just remember that in order to maintain the TINAG-ness you’ll need to have players discover them under realistic circumstances (perhaps one of the detectives takes a photo of the evidence board and posts it to his blog or a character “pins” the newspaper clipping to their Pinterest board).

While the tools that I have focused on are all internet-based, don’t forget that you can integrate real-world media into your ARG, as well. If you can do so, integrating some location-based experiences into your narrative will increase player engagement, especially for students who are kinesthetic learners. Cemeteries and libraries are just two places that are chock-full of real-world media that lend themselves to ARG’s. The goal is to integrate as many different kinds of experiences and media as you can, always keeping Coleridge’s two narrative ideals of human interest and verisimilitude in mind.

Rewarding the Brain through Purposeful Design: Reflections on Week 2 of the Games Based Learning MOOC

photo credit: Patrick Hoesly via photopin cc
photo credit: Patrick Hoesly via photopin cc

For me, the standout resource from the second week of the Games Based Learning MOOC was Tom Chatfield’s TED Talk “7 Ways Games Reward the Brain.”

Chatfield’s seven aspects of gaming align with many of the same aspects of gaming that were addressed during our discussion of fun, flow, and fiero during the first week, and I think that a consideration of his arguments regarding not only how but why games are so rewarding will help shed even more light on the issues I addressed in my last post regarding how games-based learning continues to trump classroom-based learning, despite how (poorly) gamified school already is (see my post on bad game design for a more thorough discussion of this). But understanding why/how something works is just half the battle; the most difficult part of design is putting that knowledge into action, so I’ve placed Chatfield’s talk alongside Greg Costikyan’s “I Have No Words and I Must Design” in order to highlight the practical ways in which game design elicits these rewards.

The Relationship between decisions and experience

Chatfield’s first reward is experience bars measuring progress. He argues that it’s important for players to be able to see how close they are to their long-term objective, as well as how far they’ve come since they started the game. While Chatfield qualifies explicit progress measurement as an experience bar, various games demonstrate progress in different ways, but the one thing that all games have in common is that progress is a result of decision-making on the part of the player: good decisions allow them to progress, bad decisions prevent them from progressing. In terms of design, Costikyan argues that  games make players’ choices meaningful by giving them resources to manage. Often these resources are experience points, which unlock new levels or other types of resources. If the game has more than one resource, then players’ decisions become even more complex: interesting decisions make for interesting games. But the resource(s) must have a function within the game; in other words, the resource(s) must allow the player to progress and play smarter/stronger.

This is where classroom design often falls horribly short. Often, the only resource students have any control over is their grade (the ultimate progress bar in the game of school). While educators may argue that decision-making plays a role in a student’s grade (don’t do the work or don’t do it well enough and you don’t make the grade), if a grade is the only resource a student has to manage, then the decisions they make regarding their learning are far less interesting. We could argue that students also have to manage their time, their textbooks, our instructions, etc., but often students don’t see how these resources are relevant to the game, or their grade, because we don’t make those relationships explicit the way games do. Also, students’ progress is not always made a central aspect of their learning; they may receive progress reports periodically or, worse yet, only twice during a term (as is the case in college courses), but we rarely provide them with an ever-present experience bar or cache of experience-related resources that they can constantly look at and to. I’ve argued before that we need to teach students how to be more meta, but we must give them the tools to do so and an explicit and constant visual reminder of their progress is one way to do that.


Chatfield’s next point is that games provide both short and long term goals so that players can choose between different tasks or complete tasks in parallel that all point them towards a larger, ultimate objective. Goals are, as Costikyan points out, one of the defining characteristics of games and they are what make games worthwhile, but achieving the goal must involve a struggle of some kind in order to trigger intrinsic motivation. It is the opposition that players face as they attempt to meet their short and long term goals that lies at the heart of the game. As others have pointed out, if the goal is too easy to attain, then both it and the game lose their value. Tension, Costikyan reminds us, makes for fun games:

Ideally, a game should be tense all the way through, but especially so at the end. The toughest problems, the greatest obstacles, should be saved for last.

In my last post, I addressed the need to match player with challenge and how classrooms fail to be as effective at this as games. There may be several reasons for this related to how we address short and long term goals and tension. While games establish the players’ objectives, they also allow a lot of wiggle room for player autonomy. Players usually have multiple short term goals they can choose between, often with varying degrees of difficulty. For example, in Minecraft, I can choose to gather more resources so that I don’t have to spend so much time and energy on short term survival, or I can fritter away the day spiffing up my digs. Each “day” I have to make complex decisions about how to spend my time and energy and balance my resources against my long term goals.

Minecraft Home Base
Some days are spent spiffing up my home base (despite my low health status)

As educators, we obviously have to establish learning objectives for the students. But how much wiggle room do we give them in terms of how to meet those objectives? And how often do we allow them the autonomy to decide which short term objectives to work on at any given time based on their own feelings of efficacy and motivation? And how often do we force them to make complex decisions about their own goals and those established for them? As I’ve argued before regarding game-based rules and goals:

While the rules of the game may be very rigidly defined, how the player chooses to interact with those rules is really what playing the game is all about. If games were standardized experiences for every player, no one would play them.

When we expect all students to meet standardized goals in standardized ways, we create standardized experiences. This is especially problematic when you consider how many of our students are gamers, used to autonomy and complex decision-making within ultra-responsive, randomness-filled environments that are constantly testing their individual thinking and responsiveness. The tension we are creating for our students is not a struggle to meet learning goals, but tension between what they’re capable of and what we ask/expect of them.

Effort determines destiny

Chatfield points out that, in games, all effort is rewarded. Failure is not punished. According to Costikyan, a player must feel a sense of control over their own destiny:

[I]t shouldn’t be ridiculously difficult to find what you need, nor should victory be impossible just because you made a wrong decision three hours and thirty-eight decision points ago. Nor should the solutions to puzzles be arbitrary or absurd.

How often do our students feel a sense of hopelessness because a series of failures have significantly reduced their chances of winning the game (i.e., making the grade)? How often do our students struggle with feelings of helplessness as they watch their more motivated and/or game-savvy peers maneuver through complex puzzles that seem arbitrary or irrelevant to them? How often do we make it harder on our students in order to teach them a lesson (about turning work in on time or attendance or following the rules or picking up hidden clues we drop to see how well they’re paying attention)? Too many educators confuse “rigor” or difficulty with the tension discussed above.

Timely connections

Chatfield’s fourth reward is rapid, frequent, clear feedback. He maintains that people learn by linking consequences to actions; the further away the consequence, the harder it is to link it to an action. This function is served by the resources that games provide players. In Minecraft, if I am not vigilant enough, night time will catch me unawares and I won’t have enough time to return home; if this happens and I don’t shelter in place, I’m likely to fall victim to creepers or zombies; if I die, I lose all of the resources in my inventory, but if I’ve planned ahead and stored some resources in my supply chest, then dying is not as detrimental. Eating replenishes my health. Planning ahead pays off. The best resource to have is a bed (so you can skip the dangers of night time). Games provide players with rewards based on how smart or hard they play. Get too lazy or become less engaged, and the game will motivate you to change your behavior via immediate and clear feedback.

How rapid and frequent is the feedback our students are receiving? As I mentioned above, often feedback is periodic or infrequent and students are receiving it so long after the actions to which the feedback applies, that they have lost the thread that connects the two. And, as mentioned above, students are often only receiving one type of feedback (grades), whereas game players often receive multiple forms of feedback for any given action. For example, completing a boss level may gain you XP as well as allow you to level up, which means survival and may also mean new powers and/or resources.

Even our providing various forms of feedback may not be helpful if that feedback is unclear. Again, timeliness is key here so that students can see the causal relationship, but clarity and relevance are essential, as well. If students receive feedback and then have no clue as to how to apply it to future goals, then you might as well not provide any feedback at all (unclear feedback may do more harm than good). In games, there’s always a clear connection between an action and a consequence and the game underscores that relationship with the type of resource it provides (use information correctly and you’re likely to get even more helpful information; learn from deadly mistakes and you’re more likely to survive the next time that situation arises; use weapons and armor effectively and you’ll probably unlock even better weapons and armor, etc.). And, by providing multiple forms of feedback, the relationship between smart/hard gameplay and more/better resources is intensified so that the more feedback a player receives, the more motivated they become. So, our work is not just providing immediate, clear feedback in multiple formats, but also making sure students know how to use that feedback to play smarter/harder.

The element of surprise

Chatfield’s next reward is randomness. He argues that uncertain or surprising awards are more enjoyable than those that we expect (ahem, grades, ahem). According to Costikyan, randomness provides variety of encounter. Some questions that game designers ask themselves that educators would do well to adopt are:

What things do the players encounter in this game? Are there enough things for them to explore and discover? What provides variety? How can we increase the variety of encounter? (Costikyan)

Variety of encounter provides emotional and/or intellectual stimulation. If our students walk into a scripted class meeting every day so that they know exactly what is going to happen and when and how, then there’s little to stimulate their sense of adventure. While there’s comfort in routine (the main argument used for such classrooms), our job should be pushing students outside of their intellectual comfort zones, not helping them to cocoon deeper within them. As mentioned in some of my previous posts, cognitive disfluency is a prime component of learning. How often do you surprise your students? During class, are they truly awake and alive, emotionally and intellectually, or are they no better than automatons, going through the motions of routinized behaviors that look like learning?

Gazing out of windows

Chatfield notes that, through billions of points of data, games have been able to zero in on a player’s window of enhanced engagement (what educators would call the zone of proximal development). The two elements Chatfield mentions as essential to this window are memory (give them information when they’re most primed to remember it) and confidence (game play and rewards make people braver and more willing to takes risks). What Chatfield means by the window of enhanced engagement is what  Costikyan refers to as a game’s interactive nature. A game, Costikyan argues, is truly interactive because it demands participation. A game player cannot be passive. They must interact with the game. They cannot sit and gaze out of the window, as our students often do, because without player input, there is no game. The game stops. It is a game no more. Just as, when our students tune out, there is no more learning. Learning, like games, is interactive. It requires learner input. Once the learner stops participating in the learning, learning stops.

Some questions that Costikyan prompts game designers to ask regarding player engagement are:

What can you do to make the player care about his position? Is there a single game token that’s more important than others to the player, and what can be done to strengthen identification with it? If not, what is the overall emotional appeal of the position, and what can be done to strengthen that appeal? Who “is” the player in the game? What is his point of view?

These are important questions to ask because, if the player does not care about their position, then they become less and less likely to interact with the game. The novelty of the struggle to attain the game’s goals, the immediate feedback provided during that struggle, and the variety of experiences the player encounters along the way will wane and become routine if the player does not, at some point, begin to truly care about what happens to them in-game. Variety alone is not enough to engage students because even variety must be meaningful. Do your students care about what happens to them as learners? Do they truly understand their position as learners? How are you helping them to both understand and care about who they are as learners?

The social fabric

According to Chatfield, social interaction and collaboration are the biggest drivers of motivation in game play. Jane McGonigal terms this the social fabric of games. Costikyan encourages game designers to allow opportunities for diplomacy during which players can assist each other, perhaps directly, by sharing resources, or  perhaps by combining forces against a common foe. He prompts designers to ask the following questions:

How can players help or hinder each other? What incentives do they have to do so? What resources can they trade?

How often do you consider ways to encourage students to build a social fabric? Do you integrate opportunities for diplomacy? Or even competition? For example, John Hardison gamifies class discussion of assigned readings by encouraging both diplomacy and competition. It’s not enough to throw students together in groups and expect them to collaborate. You have to create a narrative that encourages cooperation and the cooperation must serve a purpose within that narrative. In weighing the needs/requirements of the group against their own needs, students often opt for self-preservation. If self-preservation becomes inextricably intertwined with the needs/requirements of the group or if collaboration means being able to work smarter, then students are more likely to value building a social fabric.

We worked together to build a fort with an underground bunker
My son and I worked together to build a fort with an underground bunker

If there is one take-away for me from the second week of the GBL MOOC, it is the primacy of meaningful decision-making in both games and learning. According to Costikyan:

Decisions have to pose real, plausible alternatives, or they aren’t real decisions.

In considering how this relates to and connects with what I’ve learned about fun, flow, and fiero, I can’t help but pick out the common thread of autonomy. If we wish students to be engaged, (inter)active learners, then we must allow them the autonomy to make real decisions. Only in freedom to decide between plausible, relevant alternatives can we experience the fun, the flow, and the fiero that games–and meaningful learning–allow players to experience.

Ideas Are As Important As Actions

Life flows on within you and without you. ~George Harrison

There’s a lot of emphasis on constructivist learning these days. This, of  course, is a response to the passive-receptive, teacher-centered style of instruction that has been the defining characteristic of the industrialized school model. Constructivism seeks to flip this model by removing the teacher from center stage and asking students to adopt a more active-creative role, whether it be to research and solve a problem (as in problem-based learning); to develop and answer questions of interest to them and others (as in challenge-based learning); or to work to create a tangible product that reflects their understanding on an issue or concept (as in project-based learning). And these are all preferable models of learning to the lecture-focused, drill and kill method.

But I hope that in the process of reforming the focus of the academy into one of learning by doing, we don’t lose sight of the importance of ideas. The life of the mind is still a valuable and necessary component of education.

Unfortunately, I’m seeing a creeping disdain for anything that doesn’t result in some type of action on the part of the learner. For example, in his blog post, “What’s the Problem with TED Ed?”, Shelly Blake-Plock takes issue with the use of TED videos in education:

TED — in the form it is presented online to the masses — is not about doing. It is about watching. Listening. Consuming. Maybe leaving a comment or sharing a link to improve your TEDCred score. Yes, there is a wealth of interesting information and lots to think about. Personally, I find many of the lectures to be inspired. But we shouldn’t confuse an inspiring lecture and provocative ideas with “learning”.

But I would argue that oftentimes we can learn from others’ ideas. I learned a great deal about how a classroom can and should be more like a skatepark from watching TED talks by Dr. Tae Kim and Rodney Mullen and I have since used their ideas as a framework for redesigning my classroom to focus more on the principles that are valued within the skatepark. I also learned about the extraordinary abilities of children who are empowered to make a tangible contribution to their community or who simply have a computer placed within reach with no directions for how to use it. I’ve learned about what it’s like to envision the world as one big comic book and what it’s like to envision the world in pictures. And while I have not acted on any of these last four ideas, I have certainly learned from them, and my own imaginative vision of the world is richer because of them. TED is about sharing ideas. Sometimes those ideas may lead to action and sometimes they may lead to intellectual enlightenment. We can learn from both.

In my First-Year Composition Course, I ask my students to grapple with ideas. In fact, we spend a little over half of the semester dealing with ideas–theirs and those of others that they encounter as they read books, articles, websites, and blogs about whatever issue we are focusing on that semester. They spend time thinking about and debating others’ ideas. And they work through their own ideas by discussing them with each other and trying to articulate them in writing, placing them within the context of others’ ideas. My students don’t necessarily “do something” with every idea they encounter or have. Sometimes an idea is worth talking about. Sometimes it’s worth writing about. Sometimes it’s not. But each idea they encounter or entertain makes an impact, however microscopic, on their intellectual development.

I do eventually ask my students to take action on the ideas they’ve been grappling with. I ask them to solve a problem or ask and answer a question or create an artifact that will help spread their ideas to others (á la TED). But I want them to spend a lot of time thinking about the problem or question or artifact. I want them to develop a mental relationship with an idea before they publicly announce the nature of that relationship through a physical action.

I’m wondering how much of this obsession with observable actions has to do with the very industrialized model that education reformers claim to want to demolish. One of the first things that you learn to do as an education major is to write a learning objective. Everything that happens in the classroom must have an objective. In order to be able to assess whether or not that objective has been met, the result must be measurable. Therefore, it must result in an observable action. But no instrument can measure an idea. And no teacher can assess intellectual engagement.

Like the most fine and rarified and transcendent things in life, the life of the mind is invisible and unquantifiable. It goes on within us and, when it encounters an idea worth spreading or acting on, without us, as well.

By all means, let’s encourage our students to create things. But let’s also show them the beauty of ideas, even those that never result in a tangible response. They can learn something from those, as well.

If Context Shapes Content, What Does It Mean for Hybrid Pedagogy?

This TEDx talk by skateboarder Rodney Mullen fascinates and inspires me, not as skateboarder (which I am most definitely not) but as a teacher and advocate of hybrid pedagogy:

Here are some of the points that I took away from Mullen’s talk that I think impact pedagogy and hybrid pedagogy in particular:

  • the joy is in creating
  • everything is built upon a basic infrastructure
  • what drives us is doing something new
  • context shapes content
  • different environments change the nature of what you’re doing & lead to innovation
  • skateboarding is both disruptive and humbling
  • being in the moment and trusting your intuition leads to new cognitive connections
  • the beauty of skateboarding is that no guy is the best
  • members of the community use skateboarding to individuate themselves
  • they do this by taking others’ tricks, making them their own, and contributing back to the community in a way that edifies the community itself
  • summation gives us something we could never achieve individually
  • hack=knowing a technology so well you can manipulate it and steer it to do things it was never intended to do
  • hacking involves thinking about and doing things in ways that aren’t authorized
  • hacking involves connecting disparate information in unexpected ways
  • open source operates on the premise of taking what others do, making it better, and giving it back
  • there is an intrinsic value in the act of creating for the sake of creating [and teaching/learning for the sake of teaching/learning]

I have not yet begun to process these ideas and figure out exactly how they apply to the 21st century classroom. I’d love for others to begin to discuss, debate, and evaluate these ideas in terms of pedagogy.

How do the practices and rules of skateboarding relate to (or should be incorporated into) our classrooms (both physical and virtual)?